Good things come in threes!

A few nights ago I had an unique experience in a London bar, well for me at least!  A group of 2 CIO/technologists, 3 HR Directors and 3 Marketing Directors all declared the same topic as an entry in their respective top 3 challenges.   The terminology used to name the challenge differed at times, but we were all actually talking about social computing.  By this term I mean the demand for employees (often led by the most senior in the company!) to access social media sites from the corporate network and  to connect personal technology devices in the workplace.  Alongside these demands all felt pressured to ensure their company had a clear strategy for social media arena.   The resulting debate was wider ranging and grew more animated as the number of trips to the bar increased!   The senior executive “what is this stuff and should we be doing it then?” refrain generated much debate.  I was in listening mode during this segment but did point people at a recent excellent article published in the McKinsey Quarterly, “Demystifying Social Media” which I offered as valuable educational material.

The longest area of debate centred on the HR sphere, i.e. what should be encouraged or allowed and so what should the corporate policy and associated guidance material therefore state?  The technologists were keen to balance the opportunity with the need to protect corporate assets, brand and information.  The marketers were focused on gaining corporate brand benefits and cost effective social media enriched campaigns whilst managing brand impact.  However, the HR professionals were the only ones that seemed to be feeling that social computing was presenting them with far more pain than gain and  they felt forced into the position of always saying “no”.  This was fascinating as immediately the technologists and marketers all loudly declared that this was exactly how they felt as the guardians of the company from their different vantage points!  What followed was a rapid building of common understanding which at times certainly strayed into group therapy territory!

I outlined how in a previous CIO role it had taken a trio of senior managers across IT, Marketing and HR to define and enact a clear strategy and related set of policies for the social computing arena.   We had also shamelessly learnt from others, good examples being the IBM Social Computing Guidelines and the HP Blogging Code Of Conduct.  I would also flag here a fantastic resource I recently found in this area collating policy/guidance material from leading corporate across the global, the Online Database Of Social Governance.   There were also key lessons learned along the way which we then embedded in our policy, e.g. the importance of employees being clear that use of their corporate email on a social website associates them with the company brand and they cease to act as private citizens; seems very obvious now but it wasn’t at the time, least not to us.

The key lesson I’d took from that initiative way back in 2011 (seems like a lifetime ago!) was it required the IT, Marketing and HR functions to be both aligned and actively engaged to support each other.   It required a collective response to ensure that the company maximised the value and mitigated the risks.  The art of the possible joined with a focus on understanding the imperative to act but ensuring a precise and evolving articulation of the policy and guidance to guide our people.  The debate and the consensus reached that night simply confirmed those lessons still hold true.

This blog post was also shared on The Business Value Exchange,

Skating on thin ice?

I recently met the CIO of a large technology company on the banks of Stickle Tarn below Pavey Ark in the Lake District.  We both had dogs that we were restraining from leaping onto the frozen tarn and worrying about a third dog that was right out in the middle of the ice.  We turned to each other to comment on the idiocy of allowing the dog onto the creaking ice and realised that we had meet in 2012 at a conference.  We decided to do the walk back down to the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel together and chat over a pint or two.  During our descent I (rather boringly!) asked what was his number one concern right now in a work context. The reply was not what I was expecting although you would always assume it is in the top 10 worry list items for any CIO, it was data loss.   They had noticed an increasing level of attack on their network and web facing servers over recent months and were working on the premise that it is primarily aimed at intellectual property theft rather than the data and systems they host for clients.  After an interesting discussion of the security issues and approach being taken on which I must remain silent we moved on to other topics.

Over the last few pints before we parted company we talked about the shadow IT and budget raider issues I blogged about in my last post.  I was not surprised that he confirmed the issues were real to him and ones he was experiencing within his company.  He was more bullish about handling the challenges that some other CIOs with whom I’ve discussed the topic but agreed they were current and requiring time and attention to address.

Later that week I read a report published by KPMG on data loss which I was planning to talk about in this post.  However, earlier today I read a great blog post on the same topic/report by Sarah Green on the Harvard Business Review site so will instead leave you to read it here.

As a result I have room to talk about a related bee in my bonnet instead!  The point in the report on technology companies being one of the primary targets for hackers was telling as I am convinced that Apple have been hacked. 

Thin Ice - shutterstock_25299997 (2)

I think the system relating to Apple iTunes gift cards has been compromised.  I was recently given a £15 gift card which when I tried to redeem it was declared by iTunes to have “already redeemed”.  Now this was a brand new untouched card from which I had personally scratched off the code cover myself so I knew that this could not be true, unless the card was a duplicate or the underlying system compromised.  Expecting that a) Apple would be helpful and refund my money and that b) this would prove to be an isolated issues caused by a system glitch I contacted Apple and searched the support forums. 

What I found was a number of people posting with similar stories of woe across different countries and that the unhelpful implicit “well you must be mistaken as that code is reporting as already redeemed” position taken by Apple support was consistent.  My card was apparently redeemed in June 2012 so clearly my trying to redeem the same code in January 2013 meant I was the one at fault.  There is even a video of a chap posted to the Apple support forum using a clearly virgin card and obtaining the “already redeedmed” message; last I read he had made no progress in having Apple accept that there was a problem and he was not trying to re-use an old card.  To my shame I gave up arguing with Apple as for £15 it was simply not worth the hassle (and as it was a gift I lacked a receipt to prove date of purchase), however I certainly will not be buying any iTunes gift cards in the future and I remain convinced that their system has been compromised in some way.  If you are interested here is one of the support forums where people are reporting the issue.

It would seem that denying and ignoring the issue appears to have been a successful strategy for Apple to date.  I suspect that they will probably ride out the “noise” without any real publicity or PR damage.  However, I do think that they are skating on thin ice with this approach and eventually this type of customer angst does rebound and cause damage.  Denial of security breaches is tempting but ultimately transparency, acknowledgement of the issue and a declared plan to correct is probably the better strategy.

CIO angst over tea and biscuits

I was recently asked to chair an informal round-table meeting of six Chief Information Officers (CIO) with a lovely broad remit of “what does 2013 bring you?”.  The initial pleasure at being asked was tempered by the lack of fee, although to be fair there was tea and biscuits on offer!  It ended up being a really interesting two hours given a nice edge for me as I am not currently “in post” and so was able to be somewhat more detached than usual from the topic of the CIO challenge.

All of the CIOs felt that they were faced with even more conflicting demands that in previous years.  The general view being that they were expected to balance identifying and executing real innovations to drive revenues/operating profit  with a relentless imperative to continually reduce operating costs; alongside these demands they all confirmed that they were “just expected” to deliver a highly available IT service and managing the risks associated with technology, both traditional and those made more potent by the consumerisation of corporate IT. Blimey, but no real surprises.

Of course we could not avoid talking about cloud computing or how they were all frustrated to some degree or another with the lack of benefit they felt the out sourcing vendors were delivering.  On the last point I could not resist making some challenging points about CIOs being unclear about their objectives from out sourcing contracts and how many contracts ended up being adversarial l in structure thanks to misguided and unsophisticated thinking during the procurement process.  We ended up agreeing (more or less!) that it was possible to derive substantial benefit from out sourcing and that cloud computing representing a golden opportunity to address some legacy issues with the model.

The topic on which we spent the most time was related to funding and how their company’s were managing the investment process.  It was a common view in the room that we are witnessing the move of “shadow IT” into “legitimised business driven agility”.  It seems that for many the budget for line of business IT now lies outside of the CIO’s hands, in some cases without their having any approval role in the adoption process.  Indeed one somewhat downcast CIO confessed that they were effectively restricted to the “shared essential IT infrastructure” on which business operating units decide what to operate.  There clearly has to be a balanced between “enabling the business” and “exposing the business” as all had examples of where IT spend had taken place outside of their approval and had proved an expensive mistake.  That said when pressed a number did admit that there were equally examples where the line of business solution adopted had proved a huge mistake.  All felt exposed in terms of data integrity and system integration as a result of the new order.

Fencers - shutterstock_102477032 (2)

It is clearly a trend worthy of more thought and will require adjustments to the corporate operating model to optimise the value gained.  In the same general area Gartner recently issued a report talking about how the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) in many corporate is taking over areas previously held by the CIO, particularly in companies where the line between marketing and the digital world has disappeared.

They predicated that by 2017 the CMO will be spending more on IT than the CIO.  The Gartner report is behind a pay-wall but you can find an article by Forbes has a good summary of the key points here.  The importance of digital marketing in many business sectors means that the CMO and CIO need to be become the best of friends.  Indeed I read one blog post recently that was speculating on when we would see the first CIMO, Chief Information & Marketing Officer; not a title I have yet seen but I have seen Chief Digital Officer!  Gartner sum up the challenge rather well I think with:  “CIOs face a future torn between current operations and digital opportunities. The CIO agenda for 2013 involves adopting new approaches to hunting for innovations and opportunities that deliver digital value, while harvesting greater business performance from products, services and operations.”

I was impressed that all those in the room had recognised the situation and were clearly taking action to mitigate the risks for their company and find a collaborative way forwards.  Some were clearly better placed within their organisation that others to succeed.  I plan to return to this topic in the future but in the meantime a few days after the event  I read an excellent article on CIO.COM by Bernard Golden entitled  As CMOs Grab IT Budget From CIOs, Cloud CapEx and OpEx Shift.  It is well worth a read and covers the topic in a good level of reasoned detail.  The output from the event is restricted to those attending but at some point I think it will become public domain and I will add to this post.

Finally to answer what some might feel is the most critical question on the event – the biscuits on offer were a mix of shortbread and custard creams.

Innovating – keeping it relevant and real

Over recent months I have had ample time to catch up on my “to be read” collection of interesting articles and magazines.  I will confess to having consumed a large number of publications related to cycling that probably could see me be labelled obsessive  particularly as since October I’ve not been fit enough to ride my bike!  However, among all the cycling material consumed I read an article in MIT Sloan Management Review (Fall 2012 edition, volume 54) that really struck a chord with me.

The article was titled The Benefits of Combining Data With Empathy (the majority of it is behind a pay-wall I’m afraid).  It argues that to succeed in the future companies will increasingly need to find an approach that whilst being optimised in terms of business processes and technology enablement is also able to foster emotional connections with their client base and as part of that relationship building be able to use data empathetically.  The authors Ritu Agarwal and Peter Weill make a strong argument  for what they term “softscaling”.  This is an approach which has three key strands

  • creating emotional connections to customers, employees and business partners,
  • achieving operational excellence in terms of both cost and outcome, and
  • combining timely analysis of data with a clear understanding of the context to arrive at optimised empathetic decisions.

The authors argue that you need to excel at all three aspects of “softscaling” to reap the rewards.  The paper is based on research conducted in India and at five major companies in detail.  What particularly registered with me at the time was the human centric nature of the approach they are advocating.

The article was given resonance when I read the annual IBM Next 5 In 5 forecast of the five innovations that will most impact our world in the next five years.  This year IBM is talking about the innovations that will underpin the next evolution of computing, an era which IBM describe as “the era of cognitive systems“.  They believe that “this new generation of machines will learn, adapt, sense and begin to experience the world as it really is…..predictions focus on one element of the new era, the ability of computers to mimic the human senses – in their own way to see, smell, touch, taste and hear.”  The promise of these “cognitive systems” is that by operating from a human centric perspective they will help us “see through complexity, keep up with the speed of information, make more informed decisions, improve our health and standard of living, enrich our lives and break down all kinds of barriers – including geographic distance, cost and inaccessibility“.  Bold and exciting statements that the paper from IBM then continues to explore in detail in a very clear and engaging manner.  I urge you to take the time to read the IBM material, I think it is their most compelling annual forecast so far.


It is not just the technology sector that are seeing major potential in the bringing of digital intelligence to the physical world.  Recently there was an interesting article in The New York Times on General Electric’s plans entitled  Looking To Industry For The Next Digital Disruption.    The article outlines how General Electric will have invested £1 billion by 2015 in a new software centre to leverage what many call “The Internet of Things” and which GE term the “industrial Internet”.  GE believe that they have a $150 billion sized opportunity to drive efficiency into their operations by enabling their “industrial Internet”.  To reach that goal GE are embedding sensors on everything, from “a gas turbine or a hospital bed” and investing heavily in the software component to gather and make sense of the vast streams of data created.   It certainly brings a strong sense of concept becoming reality when you have an leading industrial company outside of the technology sector investing this materially.

Ensuring that innovations are viable and can deliver value in the real world is always a key concern.  A recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly looked at this necessity in an article entitled Battle-Test Your Innovation Strategy.  Ensuring that your “great new idea” is as good as you believe it to be could save a lot of wasted time and money, ensuring that if you are going to fail that you fail early.  McKinsey looked at how some companies are using war games to assess their product and services innovations by simulating the competitive real world and how the many variables might react to a given startling brilliant new idea.  This approach is an interesting variant of the scenario planning technique that many companies use at the strategic level but don’t always take to sufficient granularity as the idea evolves into a proposed new product or service. I found the McKinsey article a thought provoking read and it certainly hammered home the importance of ensuring your beloved innovation is sufficiently road-tested at each stage of its evolution.

So why the lack of posts?

Somewhat belatedly I thought it would be a good idea to explain why I have not posted to this blog for many months.

Since June 2012 I have been “distracted” with bladder cancer and the removal of a tumour on my pancreas.  The good news is that the pancreatic tumour (IPMN type for those with medical knowledge) was found to be pre-malignant and my bladder cancer is currently in remission.  The operation to remove the pancreatic tumour along with part of my pancreas, my spleen and my gall bladder was quite a “big” one. I am recovering my fitness and mobility slowly but surely and am on track for a return to the workplace in January 2013.

So depending on your point of view the good new or the bad news is that I intend to restart posting to my blog in December. I’m not sure how many readers I have left after such a long period of silence but to all that might be out there, thank you.

If the future is here today, what will shape tomorrow?

“How will the digital world change the nature of work by  2020?” was the question posed for a recent webcast I joined.  The debate was interesting, at times heated and very wide ranging. At the risk of irritating everyone else in the debate I suggested that first the question needed to be reworded.  I think the question should have read more along the lines of “How has the digital world already changed the nature of work today and where will it have reached by 2020?”

The future of work has become an increasingly high profile topic over recent months.  The approach taken in the various articles and posts has been varied with some focusing on the technology solutions whilst others have taken a more holistic societal perspective.  Regardless it is clear that we have already seen fundamental changes enabled by technology arrive in the workplace today and that over the coming years we will see what is fringe activity today become mainstream tomorrow.  Indeed we have already seen multiple waves of workplace change impact an increasing number of companies quite apart from the debate you could have around social business.  An excellent read on this topic is a book called “The Digital Workplace”  by Paul Miller that has recently been published.  Paul has also launched an organisation called the Digital Workplace Forum which is essentially a diverse community of global corporations collaborating to understand the current baseline, share the art of the possible today and jointly evolve the future opportunities.

Earlier this year I chaired a two day consultation event entitled “The Future of Work”.  The consultation was organised by an organisation called St George’s House and was one of their series of such events on social and ethical themes.  The consultations are held in unique surroundings at Windsor Castle and operated to an ethos that sees highly diverse groups of people rapidly bond into collaborative and effective discussion groups.  This particular group was diverse in every respect  bringing representatives of public and private sector and the debate was stimulating, wide-ranging and at times a challenge for me to keep on topic.  You can find the report entitled simply “The Future Of Work” on the St George’s House website.   I think a fair overall summation would be that everyone in the group recognised that the workplace was rapidly changing, that the pace of change was only going to accelerate and that there were a large number of interconnected driving and enabling technology factors.

In the months after the event I have increasingly read about a technology that we did not discuss in much detail during the consultation called 3D printing.  The impact of 3D printing on the future of industry is huge.  It is a technique for rapidly prototyping and manufacturing that is also sometimes known as additive manufacturing.  It involves creating a solid object by layering a material such as liquid plastic to a specified pattern, ie “printing”.  The pattern is created as a detailed 3D file and can be visualised prior to initiating the manufacture. Examples of what can be created range from hearing aids to replica models to prosthetic limbs to components for jet engines to dresses through to chocolate confectionary.  The implications of being able to create such complex, diverse and customised output are huge and some are talking about 3D printing as being the third industrial revolution.  A recent great piece on this theme can be found in The Economist article entitled “A Third Industrial Revolution”.  I also really like an article in Wired magazine entitled “Future Of Stuff: Vending Machines That Prints in 3D”.

The more I read about 3D printing the more it brings home that the drivers of change in the workplace of tomorrow are not restricted to the digital technologies that immediately tend to spring to mind.  I think we can regard much of the technology solutions often described as innovative as being increasing established and effectively old news where arguably it is all about implementation of solutions that the early adopters have already proven.  What is exciting is seeing clever innovative ideas evolve through the R&D stage, survive the hype stage and become implemented new solutions delivering value, business and/or societal. Clearly identifying the next new groundbreaking initiative early (presuming that like me you lack what is required to be the inventor!) and understanding how to derive value from it is the key.

Getting personal with the cloud

If there’s one thing the IT industry is spectacularly good at, it is producing buzzwords. Marketing executives – even management gurus – look enviously over their shoulders at our industry’s propensity to churn out a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new acronyms and expressions.  We over use them in PowerPoint, extolling the virtues of the latest X and how it will mean Y to Z and to all of Z’s customers.  Meanwhile our audiences wearily roll their eyes upwards at each new piece of jargon!

So, after an endless diatribe of Private Clouds, Public Clouds and Hybrid Clouds, does anybody have the energy for Personal Clouds?  And when we learn it is rooted in consumer IT – itself the most crowded territory for industry jargon (think ‘Mobile’, ‘Post PC’, ‘BYOD’, ‘User Experience’ – it never stops) – we’re reaching for the off switch.  Why should we care?  Perhaps more to the point, why should I risk antagonising you by writing a blog on the subject?

I could start by explaining the idea of the Personal Cloud is gaining traction across the IT industry.  Gartner, for example, were predicting last month that Personal Cloud would replace the PC by 2014.   Or that a cursory search of Google Trends shows the term first appearing in web searches as recently as June 2011, and growing rapidly ever since.  But hype of course is no justification of something’s worth in itself. Worse, it’s so often accompanied by the array of contradictory definitions that seem to meet every new piece of IT terminology.  The important thing is to look at what is actually happening out there.  Because whatever words we want to use, whatever charts we want to draw, an important development is taking place.

For me there are two parts to this.

One is that we now have an unprecedented range of consumer utilities at our disposal to enable our – for want of a better phrase – personal productivity. All the things that you need to do in your daily life – communicate, write, find things out, calculate, plan and schedule, collaborate and share – are enabled by software.  And these days you are quite likely to go online for your software because, let’s face it, apps are as cheap as chips and very often they are free.  When consumed in this way, the set of utilities starts to resemble a virtual space which exists somewhere ‘out there’. This is where the term Personal Cloud may start to seem relevant.  Moreover, this is perhaps the first truly consumerized set of software with real consumer product DNA. It is pure B2C, whereas MS Office and its ilk have their heritage in B2B – even when they have been sold to the C.

Second is to consider this in the context of mobile devices. It is fair to say that if you use a PC you are probably happy to use a workspace that is fixed and licensed to that machine. Traditionally, that has been provided for you by your company. More than likely you have created a similar environment on a home PC – maybe the software was cheaper than the corporate version but nonetheless what you bought came in a cardboard box wrapped in cellophane.  Its code is now firmly attached to the hard disk – as is the information you have created from it.  Mobile changes everything.  You probably don’t need me to argue that with a mobile device, online, consumer software makes the most sense. But here’s the thing. The real value of Personal Cloud is not about your first mobile device, it’s about your second, and your third.  As you add more devices – a smartphone here, a media tablet there, so it becomes more beneficial to you that your software and personal information are virtualised and accessible.   DropBox and Apple’s iCloud are enjoying huge popularity as people realise how much easier it is to have a consistent experience across their devices.  Of course you also have come to realise you need – and expect – the same experience across all of your computers – home and work.

Lurking behind all this, like a troublesome and unwelcome party guest, is a profound implication for the way that businesses deliver end user computing to their employees.  Because now you’ve got your personal devices synced, isn’t it time you also synced your work stuff?  And if you already have a virtual workspace, which by the way you can access at work, why would you need your employer to provide you with an alternative, possibly inferior one?  And would you use it?

There is already strong impetus in the enterprise for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and no doubt you will be familiar with the arguments.  The use of mobile in the workplace is a disruptive force and is being viewed by the enterprise, albeit with suspicion, as mostly harmless.  But the argument for Personal Cloud is slightly different. Devices are as varied as they are disposable.  Their useful life expectancy is falling. No one device will define what’s personal to us.  It will be our own personal experience – the set of information and applications that we use – that will become the footprint that defines us and persists with us.  This is what Personal Cloud has the potential to deliver.

Personal Cloud is therefore likely to overtake mobile as the number one headache for CIOs.  Consumer technology has a Trojan Horse feel about it.  It sits outside the enterprise walls, gathering a lot of attention, as suspicious IT functions ready themselves to accept the seemingly harmless gift.  But as we all know, it wasn’t a big hollow wooden horse that did for the Trojans.  It was its payload of Greek warriors, led by Odysseus, who crept out in the dead of night and opened up all the city gates to break a ten year deadlock.  Likewise, Personal Cloud will be carried into the enterprise on mobile devices.  It will change the way enterprises deliver end-user computing for good.

A big data reality check

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being the chair for the Fujitsu North America Technology Forum 2012. The focus of the event was extremely topical as it was “From Sensor Networks to Human Networks: Turning Big Data into Actionable Wisdom”. Alongside the excellent presentations there were also specific topic breakout sessions as well as a technology hall with 20 new opportunities showcased as well as innovative solutions from Fujitsu’s research and development programmes working on “leveraging ‘big data’ to transform business, society and our daily lives”. That’s certainly a big vision statement!

The event attracted around 400 attendees which managed to combine a significant scale with a nice feeling of intimacy.  What struck me most about the day was the high level of interest and the wide range of perspectives represented and explored.  Oh and yes I also learned the value of your main keynote speaker being someone as experienced and relaxed as Gordon Bell – when the microphone failed just as he got into his stride; it was great to see a professional handle that blip without a flick of concern or missing a beat!

This is not the first time we’ve mentioned the big data topic on this blog (and you can read more on our Technology Perspectives site) but the over-riding message I took from my many discussions during the event was that people seem fairly comfortable with the concept but are very much focused on how to extract “actionable wisdom”.  In the context the presentation from Michael Chui of McKinsey Global Institute is definitely worth some reading time as a great summary of where value might be drawn across the industry spectrum.  There is also more detail in a research paper he published in 2011 entitled “Big Data: The next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity”.

I was also extremely interested in one of the breakout sessions focusing on the healthcare sector when Fujitsu Laboratories of America (FLA) spoke of partnering with a technology subsidiary of a healthcare provider, Springfield Clinic.  This joint development around remote patient monitoring and reporting caught my attention and I was able to discuss in more detail outside of the session with Jim Hewitt, CEO Jardogs and CIO Springfield Clinic.  I was excited to hear about some technology I’d seen during its earlier research incarnation, a remote sensing platform, had been integrated with Jardogs’ FollowMyHealth Universal Health Record (UHR).  The combination creates an anytime, anywhere collection and transmits selected health data types to be immediately usable by the patients UHR.  There is definitely a buzz to be had from seeing something you saw at a very early conceptual stage becoming real and moving to pilot deployment.

Finally what gave me most food for thought was the keynote presentation by Gordon Bell and his MyLifeBits initiative; the digital storage of every aspect of a life.  I am still mulling over the questions his material raised for me and deciding what conclusions I reach.  It certainly made a term like “digital universe” have wider connotations and more personal resonance for me than it did before he started speaking.

If you’d like to learn more, follow these links to: more images; copies of the presentation materials; and details of this and previous FLA events.

Interactions between the physical and digital worlds

Working for an Information Technology company presents me with a view of life that the digital economy is a must and an integral part of today’s society yet, where that may be true in some parts of the world and within certain demographics, it’s not a statement that everyone would recognise.

But technology is increasing its impact our world every day and lots of very inventive people are finding ways that the digital world can support the physical world, even in very poor and under-developed regions.

The trend for me in this blog post is not the consumerisation of IT as an IT professional may see it, but at what point is something compelling for a consumer, who has very little in the physical world compelled to join the digital world because it makes a significant difference to their daily life?

An excellent example is the Reuters Mobile Light service provided to Indian farmers since 2007 to provide commodity prices, crop and weather data via SMS. Often a community shares a handset but individuals have their own SIM. The service has grown as one subscriber often shares the information with their community to decide where is the best place to send their produce to get the best price and now even use mobile phones to control irrigation.

In more developed parts of the world what we want can be very different, but still critical to our day to day needs with the ability to respond to a need being very fast indeed, such as using a cell phone to measure exposure to radiation in response to specific events such as last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Mobile technology is not just useful to respond to disasters, for example going for a health check at a labyrinth of a hospital and wondering how long one is going to have to wait, lead to the creation of a patient guidance system that should take some of the stress out of the visit – and there are many other examples of mobile applications allowing us to take care of ourselves and improve our physical well-being.

This tells us that the digital world can be a significant force for good in the physical world, the needs of the developing world are very different from the developed world and, using ITU numbers, it seems that a third of the developed world is still not connected (two thirds in the developing world).

So, we can all “do our bit” by taking the 2G mobile handsets that we last used about five years ago and are collecting dust in a drawer, digging them out and sending them to our favourite charities, who may use them to help people in other parts of the world (for example, the Indian farmers) and allow greater participation in the digital society.

A back catalogue of ideas

When we look in to the works of some of our great inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Babbage, Nikola Tesla or even authors like Isaac Asimov, you have to ask “have we thought of everything we will ever need?”

This particular train of thought was sparked as I read a BBC article about Charles Babbage’s difference engine. This machine’s memory would be equivalent to around 675bytes, or just over half that of Sinclair’s ZX81, released in 1981. A later proposal by Babbage called for 20KB of storage. The machine’s clock speed would work out at around 7Hz, compared to the ZX81’s 3.2MHz – and this was all designed circa 1835. The fastest computers of today deliver 10-petaflops of computational performance per second – so time moves on but I have to ask if all of our ideas been realised?

Assuming not raises another question – where is the “back catalogue” of ideas that we’ve not been able to deliver on yet? And are we just waiting for the materials science to catch up? Every day I read something new is appearing, usually though it’s smaller, faster, cheaper rather than brand new and in achieving these attributes becomes more consumable and available to a wider population. The humble mobile phone is one example – with wireless telephony invented by a Kentucky Farmer called Nathan B Stubblefield as long ago as 1907!

Another example comes to mind that of wireless power, Nikola Tesla demonstrated this circa 1896 and only now is it close to reality with technology demonstrators that we would recognise with contact changing mats and wireless monitors.

So as material science brings many of these crazy ideas in to the realm of possibility it would be great to see companies returning to the dusty archives in patent offices (or company intellectual property offices) and reviewing what they have, to see if it old ideas are now possible. On the flip side we have to avoid squabbles over patents (the “Nortel patent wars” are just one example) – it’s much more preferable that something tangible is realised rather than arguing in a court of law.

Really it’s not just about the way we will do things but how we already do things today. Just because we worked out how to crack a nut with a sledge hammer doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go back and examine the original “nut cracker” invention to see if the material science allows us to accomplish the task more effectively and to greater benefit to society.

I’ll leave you with two questions:

  1. Which is the greatest invention that we’ve realised so far: the wheel; paper and the written word; the Internet; or something else?
  2. What idea that you have heard of is still to be realised in our World today? (“Beam me up Scotty”)